America Pivots to the Pacific

Professor James Holmes of the Naval War College is fast becoming one of my favorite web authors. I have blogged about one of his articles before, and this week he has produced another fine piece in Foreign Policy about U.S. strategy in the Pacific, Is America Pivoting Fast Enough to the Pacific? Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down (hopefully), the Pentagon is moving to bolster American forces in the Pacific.

China will prove to be tough customer in any fight.  The U.S. should be wary of sticking its nose too far into the South China Sea dispute. It is not our territory, and never will be. We don’t want China to steamroll every other Asian nation, but the militaries of those front line countries should be putting forward the bulk of the forces to defend against possible Chinese moves.

Also, Holmes points out that the new LCS – Littoral Combat Ship – about which I have also previously blogged, is not as powerful as a conventional destroyer or similar surface ship. They are not meant to duke it out with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Fair enough. But then why are we building them at all if they are so comparatively weak? I understand that they will have uses other than in a full battle, such as fighting pirates or clearing mines, but wouldn’t some smaller, less expensive craft be suitable for such missions? I would prefer a better PT-style boat, armed with guns and a few missiles, not a weak but still expensive frigate that isn’t really a frigate.

During the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy found itself scattered across the globe on various imperial missions. The relative decline of the main fleet in Britain itself caused the German navy chief Alfred von Tirpitz to believe that he could build a fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy in its home waters, his thinking being that Britain’s overseas commitments would render it unable to collect all of its much larger navy back home to resist the German fleet.

He was wrong – very wrong. The British indeed recognized the German threat as paramount, and pulled back most of their forces from overseas stations. They also improved relations with the U.S., which obviated the need for a powerful North American squadron, and concentrated on building big capital ships to maintain their edge over the Germans.

But the damage was already done. The Germans had spooked the British like nothing else had since Napoleon. The anti-German alliance hardened, and Britain was inclined to see every additional ship launched by the Germans as a threat to their existence.  The seeds of the First World War were sown in large part because Germany misjudged Britain’s determination to remain the world’s foremost naval power.

The U.S should not become confused about its priorities. Fighting piracy and other such things are useful, but the role of the navy is to safeguard America, not other nations. To do this, it has to be able to either deter or dissuade other navies from taking hostile actions against it. That means powerful combatants. The LCS does not seem like it is meant to be that kind of a ship.

Not every ship must be powerful. Sometimes a navy needs large numbers of a ship at a low cost. World War Two-era Fletcher class destroyers were not overwhelmingly powerful. But they were true combatants, and did their job well. They were also backed up by large numbers of other ships. Does the building of the LCS take away from funds that might go into fewer but better ships, such as the Arleigh Burke class destroyer? At root, this is a question about how effective the LCS will be in a stand up seafight. I don’t know the answer to that.

This brings up another, fundamental question: Can the Pentagon make anything inexpensively? Does every weapon system have to be equipped with all the bells and whistles? This drives up development time and costs, and makes the finished product all the more expensive. There are some things that will never be cheap, such as a nuclear submarine or an aircraft carrier. If the question is fighting seaborne piracy, however, and it is safe to assume that pirates are not operating destroyers, then a smaller ship is a sufficient solution. I suppose the LCS is meant to be a more affordable ship, but I worry that too many sacrifices were made to keep the price (relatively) low.


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